Finding a Fit
A couple of fine craftspeople embrace local hardwoods and put down roots in Maine
There’s a piece of California hidden in Heide Martin’s Rockland studio. It’s located behind all the sawdust-strewn workbenches, behind the cabinet filled with Japanese handsaws and Lie-Nielsen handtools, up the metal set of stairs, inside her sparse office space. Her husband and business partner, Patrick Coughlin, clears it off so that I can better see the work. “It took her over 40 hours to weave that,” he says with a touch of pride.
The cane weaving is an unusual touch for a coffee table, but even more unusual is the fact that Martin does this work by hand. “Most people use premade panels that they cut to size,” Cough- lin explains. Not Martin. Her work, which bridges the line between art and craft, rarely involves anything remade. This oil-rubbed walnut table inspired by the landscape and architecture of southern California, is a remarkable bit of craftsmanship, solid and delicate at once. It’s a unique piece, destined for a furniture gallery in Los Angeles. While you can see images of it online, this is the kind of work you have to encounter firsthand to truly understand. It’s subtle, the beauty. Its appeal comes from the texture, the finish, the interplay between natural materials. It comes from the luster of light moving over grain, over the delicate cellular structure. It’s quiet, but impressive.
You could say that of all the pieces that come out of this two-person Rockland studio. Martin and Coughlin strike me as calm, restrained people who do calming, restrained work. They seem to fit in well with Yankee culture, though they’re not originally from here. They met and were married out in Seattle. Before coming to Maine, she worked in land- scape architecture and he worked as a designer and finish carpenter. “I felt like working on a computer for the rest of my life wasn’t the road I wanted to go down,” Martin explains of their 2015 decision to switch coasts. “We moved here so I could enroll in the furniture program at the Center for Furniture Craftsmanship. We liked the area. We stuck around.” For nine months, she studied joinery and finishing, turning and veneering. She threw herself into the program and found that furniture making felt right. It fit.
So did Maine. A little more than a week after Martin’s program ended, they bought a house in Appleton. She started working at the Center for Furniture Craftsmanship, and Coughlin continued working for a local furniture maker. In their off hours, they began to build their own business, one where Martin’s designs (already being lauded by magazines and finding followers among interior designers and architects) would take center stage. Coughlin would work in the background, running numbers, managing projects, and finding new ways to produce their high-end designs. “I have plenty of opinions when it comes to design,” Coughlin adds with a laugh. “But I know that doesn’t make me a designer. It’s a collaboration, but it’s her vision. I’m lucky to be a part of it.”
Five years later, they have struck a tentative balance, one that has been interrupted by the global pandemic (and a new infant addition to the family) but not overturned. Coughlin still works production, Martin still designs. “We’ve gotten more plugged into our Maine community,” says Coughlin. “We’ve been working a lot more with people here, rather than people in California or New York.” This is a good thing, not just because it cuts down on shipping costs. It also allows people to see their work: the finishes, the textures, the undulation of fibers, the grain of wood.
One of the more specialized elements of Martin’s creations is her weaving. “I taught myself,” she says. “There’s not a lot of schools that teach it and it’s an art in and of itself.” A lifelong crafter, Martin liked the idea of making bristly plant fibers mimic string and yarn. She had been sewing for years, and she had used a loom before, but caning, weaving with leather, working with Shaker tape? All that was new. Fortunately, she was in the right place. Some of the most famous designs to come out of Maine were historically produced by Shaker communities. Their work was simple, graceful, and subtly textured. Their chairs used woven elements to add comfort and strength. Martin could learn by looking.
“Back when I went to shows,” she says, “and I’d tell people I was from Maine, they’d say things like, ‘Ah that makes sense.’ I think they could see something in my designs before I could.” From the beginning, Martin used a lot of local lumber—ash and oak, alongside other Ameri- can hardwoods, like walnut—to make her cabinets, trays, stools, and coffee tables. “We don’t use any exotics,” she says. “It’s all about regionality. I want my work to be of a place.” She brought in other materials, like leather, Tampico fiber, and felted wool, to add visual interest and utility. For instance, Martin designed a shoe cabinet with a woven door, “to add breathability.” She has a bench, intended for use at the end of a bed or beside a door, topped with plush merino felt. She’s used leather to add softness and flexibility to her furni- ture. All of her materials are chosen to “age gracefully,” she explains. “I feel like it’s important to have honesty behind a piece,” she says. “Like you can understand it when you see it, and when you live with it. I like things that aren’t too precious. I don’t want somebody to buy something I make and worry they might damage it.”
While Coughlin is focused on making more production-oriented pieces (i.e., available in a higher volume at a lower price point), he shares Martin’s reverence for finely done work. To that end, he’s been working on making things like trays, stools, and hand mirrors that feature exposed joinery and oil-rubbed finishes, things he can produce in the workshop and ship to customers who find them online. “I’m working to make things more efficiently,” he says. From both a “philosophical and temperamental standpoint,” production appeals to him. Like everything else in life, it’s a balance. “I want to bring design to more people,” Coughlin says. Martin agrees. “When we can do fairs again, I want people to be able to go home with some- thing of mine. A cutting board, a tray table. It would be nice.”